November 1, 2007

Book review: <em>The Essential Blender</em>

Author: Nathan Willis

The Essential Blender from No Starch Press is both a reference and instructional guide to Blender, the open source 3-D modeling, rendering, and animation tool. It walks readers through Blender's capabilities by alternating hands-on tutorials with broader, topical chapters that discuss the key concepts and how Blender implements them. Despite a few flaws, it's a good resource for those struggling with the software.

The $45 book was written and produced by the Blender Foundation, which oversees the Blender project. Ten authors are credited directly, another three are listed for their contributions by way of Blender documentation, and the entire collection was edited by Roland Hess.

A CD that accompanies the text includes example content for the tutorials and Blender 2.44 installers for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. Installation and bare-bones troubleshooting are covered in Chapter zero. Chapter one covers 3-D basics, and Blender-specific content commences in chapter two with a discussion of the application's user interface.

Subsequently, the authors devote a chapter each to object manipulation, mesh modeling, sculpting and multiresolution meshes, character animation, rigging and skinning, deformation with shape keys, textures and materials, UV unwrapping, the lighting system, the particle system, the compositing and rendering system, and customizing the app. The final chapter is reserved for a brief "what isn't covered here" discussion, touching on advanced topics such as rigid and soft body dynamics, and fluid simulation.

Each chapter consists of two parts: a tutorial and a topical explication. The tutorials illustrate each chapter topic with a small project. At the beginning of the book, this means creating and manipulating objects by hand. By the later chapters, it means using the sample files from the CD. The tutorials do not build directly on each other -- you don't have to construct a scene in one chapter in order to explore adding texture to it in the next. This allows you to safely skip over topics that you understand without falling behind, as you might in a progressive, workbook-style text.

The topical discussion in each chapter covers the basic subject matter (e.g., what a coordinate system is, or what armatures and inverse kinematics are), but it also systematically steps through Blender's implementation of the subject. For some topics, the implementation is more significant portion of the discussion. Most readers know what lights, reflections, and shadows are, after all, but the specific properties and capabilities of lamps in Blender require explaining.

All of the text is well-written -- clear in its explanations of concepts, and with few exceptions linear in its presentation of the material -- though the writing style does vary from author to author, particularly in the tutorials. Some are too conversational in tone, interrupted frequently with first-person interjections and asides, but even then the tasks are straightforward enough that I had no trouble working through them.

But as good as they are individually, the order of the two kinds of material within each chapter is counterintuitive: the hands-on tutorials come first, followed by the topical discussion. This seems backward; halfway through the book I started reading the discussion sections first, and the tutorials went much faster. This is particularly true in the later chapters, where even a brief introduction to subjects like rigging and skinning speeds up progress through the tutorial.

Of course, any individual reader's learning style may be different, but putting the explanatory copy before the hands-on tutorials would certainly save paper. Coming, as they do, before the discussion sections, each tutorial spends a portion of its time briefly explaining terms and concepts in-line, even though that information is duplicated and explored in depth in the subsequent discussion.

Magnifying glass not included

When I called the text content well-written above, it was to call attention to a bigger problem -- the readability of the illustrations. Adjusting the order in which you read the sub-chapters is no great burden. But the screenshots that accompany the text are the weakest part of the book, and there is no easy fix for that.

In most cases images are too small -- one inch high or less, rarely if ever larger than two inches. At that size the print resolution makes the on-screen elements unreadable. A screenshot showing 3-D objects (e.g., to illustrate the effects of the sculpting tools) is OK, but an entire Blender window reduced to that size is useless.

The lack of detail is exacerbated by the fact that Blender's default interface uses low-contrast gray on gray elements. Dithering in black and white, especially at low resolution, makes them unintelligible. Lines, graphs, text widgets, and wireframe models all end up looking like formless gray rectangles.

Some of the section authors make reference to the illustrations in their copy -- alluding to "the screenshot below" or so on -- and in a number of places I found it unclear which illustration the author meant because of interrupted text flow. Many of the pages use four or more small illustrations, and they are not consistently placed on the page. Some are in-line with the text, some off to one side, some placed on lines by themselves between paragraphs.

The publisher has placed a PDF version of chapter six on its page for the book; you can download the PDF and get a feel for the problematic illustrations I have described. But even then, your monitor has higher contrast than the printed page.

The elephant in the workspace

The discussion of Blender's user interface in chapter two is a productive read for those new to the app, but it also exposes the problems of the oft-criticized UI in black-and-white terms. Consider the following quote from page 38, from a list of common commands:

Save: shortcut: Ctrl-W. While many applications throughout the world use this shortcut to Close a document, Blender uses it to Save. Under most conditions in Blender, you can also use the traditional Ctrl-S to save, but due to conflicts with hotkeys in certain modes, it's not guaranteed. Ctrl-W will always work.

This is exactly why people complain about Blender's interface. It is both inconsistent with the established conventions of the software world, and internally inconsistent at the same time.

Or, from further down the same page:

Quit: shortcut: Crtl-Q. Pressing Crtl-Q brings up the "OK? Quit Blender" popup, which must be confirmed by a mouse click. Once again, a reminder is in order that Blender will not prompt you to save your work in progress. The best way to avoid quitting without saving is to drill into your reflexes that the Quit command is really Ctrl-W, Ctrl-Q. That'll be a Save, followed by a Quit.

"Drilling into your reflexes" that the Quit command isn't what the interface says it is is the best way to avoid losing your work? I don't think so.

This sorry state of affairs blames users for the app's failure to preserve unsaved work. Regardless of whether you feel that Blender should prompt you to save your work, it is more appropriate to ask for confirmation of the save state than for confirmation of the decision to quit. And if the quit requires the user's confirmation, it should ask about the save state, too.

Both of these obvious, dangerous interface warts should have been properly triaged as UI bugs and squashed years ago.

While a review of a software manual is not normally the place to review any aspect of the software itself, in this case it is appropriate because The Essential Blender was written and compiled by the Blender team. Hopefully, the more eyes that see UI problems courtesy of the book, the more users will press to get them fixed.

Gold stars

On the plus side, the authors are to be commended for their thoroughness in the discussion sections of each chapter, and for the quality of the tutorials. It is a wise editorial choice to make the tutorials independent of one another. That way, the book is more accessible and more likely to be grabbed off the shelf more frequently. Imagine that you are a consummate 3-D modeler; you probably won't be interested in the chapters on basic modeling. But you can skip right to the chapter on compositing and dive right in.

Kudos are also in order for The Essential Blender's judicious use of side notes -- the little boxes in the outside margins that feature bullet points or summary text. That is the correct usage: summarizing the key points in the adjacent text. I have read a lot of tech books, and far too many of them use side notes as a dumping ground for anecdotes, tangents, and arbitrarily extracted details, all of which serve only to interrupt the flow of the text and slow down the reader.

Finally, the authors deserve praise for their success in explaining concepts of 3-D modeling and editing in terms of real-world activities. It is a weakness when the best explanation is "you'll understand this once you try it" -- as I have read in other 3-D tutorials.

But starting from chapter one, The Essential Blender manages to incorporate simple and helpful analogies for all of its concepts. How would you build a 3-D model in the real world?, it asks. What tools would you use? How would you paint it and give it texture? This educational material is well thought-out and well explained.

It will blend!

Despite the disappointing illustrations, I still recommend this book to Blender students.

I hope the publisher can fix some of the graphics problems for future editions, because poor illustrations undermine otherwise excellent text. I think full-color would have been the way to go for this topic; it would add to the price of the book, but in a visual graphics tutorial it would make a big difference. So too would increasing the size of the illustrations.

Barring either of those changes, the authors should consider switching interface themes for future black-and-white illustrations: the dark gray and light gray on medium gray is disastrous when dithered in black and white.

Still, the quality of the tutorials and discussions more than make up for it. And I hope we will see future revisions of this book covering even more of Blender's high-end capabilities.


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